What Americans think about the diversity of their elected officials

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
November 18, 2022, 2:21 PM GMT+0

Polling conducted by YouGov in the days following this year's election finds that large shares of Americans believe it's important for their elected officials to be demographically representative of the American population; among the most likely form of diversity to be prioritized is representation in regard to education and age. There is a disconnect between what Americans find important in representation and how they perceive the current situation: Fewer than half of people say that America's elected officials are currently even somewhat representative of the country overall in each of the eight ways asked about: age, disability, education, gender, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and wealth or income. Americans are correct about a lack of representation along these dimensions, at least with regard to members of Congress.

Which party's elected representatives are more demographically representative of the country as a whole? Despite data showing that Democratic members of Congress are far more representative than Republicans of the American population overall in terms of their gender, race or ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, fewer than two in five people think this is the case for each of these types of diversity, while most Americans believe the parties are equally representative or are not sure which is more representative. When it comes to Congress, there is also a skewed perception of the extent of religious diversity among each party's elected officials: Even though only two congressional Republicans are non-Christian — far fewer than the share of U.S. adults who are non-Christian — Americans are more likely to believe religious representation is greater among Republicans than to think it is greater among Democrats.

How important are different types of diversity among elected officials to Americans?

Americans are generally divided in their responses to how important it is for U.S. elected officials to reflect the nation's population in regard to eight demographic and socioeconomic traits. Education and age are the traits regarded as at least somewhat important by the most Americans — far more than emphasize any of race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.

Members of each party disagree on the importance of different types of traits. Majorities in each party — larger ones among Democrats than among Republicans — say it's at least somewhat important for politicians to reflect the American public in terms of their education or age. Majorities of Democrats — but far fewer Republicans — say representativeness based on race or ethnicity, gender, or wealth or income is very or somewhat important. Fewer than half in each party say representation based on sexual orientation or religion is at least somewhat important, though Democrats are more likely than Republicans to emphasize sexual orientation and Republicans are more likely to emphasize religion.

How representative are America's elected officials?

Fewer than one in five Americans believe elected officials in the U.S. are very representative of the nation's population in terms of any of the eight characteristics polled. Slightly more believe they represent the electorate somewhat well in each way. One characteristic that does stand out is wealth or income: About half say the government is not very representative in this regard, including 26% who say it's "not at all" representative — more than the share who say this about any other trait.

Elected officials in the U.S. are seen as very or somewhat representative by roughly equal shares of Democrats and Republicans on characteristics of education, age, religion, wealth or income, and disability. Somewhat larger partisan gaps exist on race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender — each of which Republicans see as being represented among elected officials to a greater extent than Democrats do.

Comparing the share of Americans who say representativeness on each trait is very or somewhat important to the share who say it is currently being represented very or somewhat well gives us an idea of the types of diversity Americans want emphasized but feel are lagging. The scales of the two measures aren't parallel — people could think a type of diversity is important precisely because they perceive a lack of representativeness — but comparing the gap across the eight types of diversity polled shows which ones are least aligned between public preference and reality. The biggest gaps apply to educational diversity — which 65% deem important but just 45% say has been achieved to some degree and age diversity, which 60% deem important and 41% say has been achieved at least somewhat. Nearly half of people think it's important for elected officials to represent Americans in terms of disability status and a similar proportion for wealth or income, but only around one in three believe there has been at least some progress toward each of these goals.

Which party's elected officials are more representative of Americans overall?

Many Americans' understanding of which major party is more representative of Americans overall in terms of their demographic characteristics does not correspond to the demographics of Congress, America's largest and most powerful body of elected officials. While the demographics of local elected officials likely also inform Americans' perceptions, when it comes to members of Congress, Democrats are more representative of U.S. adults than Republicans are in regard to gender, disability status, race or ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. However, our survey finds that only around one-third or fewer Americans believe the Democratic Party is more representative in each of these regards, while the rest say Republicans are, both parties are equal, or are not sure.

One reason that for each type of diversity so few Americans say Democratic elected officials are more representative — and even fewer say the same of Republicans — is the polarization of responses. For just about each type of diversity in each party, more members of that party said their elected officials were more representative than the share who said the same about the other party.

Here's a closer look at diversity in Congress and how it compares to public perception of diversity among American elected officials:

Age: The 117th Congress has been the oldest, on average, of any Congress in history, and far from representative of the age distribution of American adults overall. While both party's representatives are older, on average, than Americans overall, congressional Democrats are slightly more out of line, with the average member being 61 compared to 58 among Republicans. Perhaps reflecting the aging profile of both parties in Congress, few Americans reported thinking that one party was more representative than the other; most said both parties were equally representative in regard to age or weren't sure.

Disability status: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in four U.S. adults has a disability. Yet data on members of Congress collected in 2022 suggests that only around 5% have a disability — possibly an underestimate since some may not publicly disclose their disability. While neither party reflects Americans in this regard, Democrats are slightly more representative than Republicans: 20 congressional Democrats are estimated to have disclosed a disability compared to 5 congressional Republicans. When asked which party they think is more representative in terms of disability status of elected officials, Americans are twice as likely to say Democrats as they are to say Republicans.

Educational attainment: Members of Congress are far more likely to have graduated from college than Americans overall are. In 2022, the vast majority of members of Congress — by some estimates, 96% — had a college degree, compared to just 38% of Americans 25 and older in 2020. In the 117th Congress, most incoming members without a college degree were Republicans. When asked which party's elected officials are more representative of the American public in regard to education, Americans are about equally likely to say Democrats are the more representative party as they are to say Republicans are.

Gender: The 117th Congress includes more women than ever before, though women still account for just over a quarter of all members, far fewer than their share of the population, which is slightly over 50%. Democratic officials are more diverse in this regard: Women account for 38% of congressional Democrats and just 14% of congressional Republicans. Americans who named one party as more representative than the other were twice as likely to name Democrats than to name Republicans.

Race or ethnicity: The racial and ethnic diversity of Congress has increased in recent years: 23% of representatives elected in 2020 identify as racial and ethnic minorities. While this is more than at any other point in history, it is far less than the roughly 40% of Americans who are non-white. Our survey shows that Americans are twice as likely to say the Democratic Party is more representative in terms of race or ethnicity relative to Republicans than to say Republicans are more representative than Democrats. They are correct in this regard, at least when it comes to Congress: 83% of members of Congress who are members of a racial or ethnic minority are Democrats.

Religion: While Congress has grown more religiously diverse over time, it is still overwhelmingly Christian, and far from representative of the U.S. population as a whole: 88% of members in the 117th Congress reportedly are Christian, relative to 65% of U.S. adults. And just one member of Congress is religiously unaffiliated, compared to 26% of Americans overall. Nearly all non-Christian members of Congress are Democrats; just two congressional Republicans are non-Christian (both identify as Jewish). Americans are more likely to say elected Republicans are more religiously representative than to say elected Democrats are.

Sexual orientation: Sexual minorities are underrepresented in Congress: In 2021, 2.1% of members of Congress identified as LGBTQ, significantly fewer than the roughly 5.6% of Americans who did so at that point. Currently, all LGBTQ Congress members are Democrats, though this is expected to change next year: Last week, George Devolder-Santos became the first openly LGBTQ Republican elected to Congress representing New York's 3rd District. A total of 38% of Americans believe that elected Democratic are more representative in terms of sexual orientation than elected Republicans, compared to just 12% who say elected Republicans are more representative.

Wealth or income: Members of Congress are far wealthier than average Americans: Personal financial disclosures suggest that in 2018 the median net worth of members of Congress was around $500,000, roughly five times the median net worth of American households. Elected Democrats and Republicans are both far wealthier, on average, than Americans overall, though Republicans are somewhat more likely to sit at the top of the congressional wealth hierarchy. In 2018, 43 members of Congress were estimated to be part of the 1% of wealthiest Americans; 26 of these were Republicans and 17 were Democrats. In our survey, Americans were roughly equally likely to say each party was more representative than the other in regard to elected officials' wealth or income.

— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article

This poll was conducted on November 9 - 11, 2022, among 1,500 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.

Image: Adobe Stock (Franzi draws)